How did Modi lose Karnataka — and could he lose India?
Analysts say misgovernance, infighting and hate politics caused the downfall of Modi’s BJP in the crucial polls.
In the end, the writing was on the wall.
Exit polls after the May 10 voting in the southern Indian state of Karnataka had projected that the opposition Congress party stood a better chance of forming the next government than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was in power.
Yet few would have predicted the scale of the Congress victory, coming against the backdrop of the BJP’s dominance over Indian politics in recent years, and the governing party’s ability to form governments even in states where it fails to secure a majority — often using controversial means.
On Saturday, the Congress managed to win 135 of the 224 seats in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly despite those odds, securing 43 percent votes, 5 percent more than in the previous 2018 election, and 7 percent more than the BJP this time. Modi’s party, which had won 104 seats in 2018, had to settle for 66 this time. The Janata Dal (Secular), or JD-S, the third major party in the state, got 19 seats.
Central to that outcome were local political factors, said analysts. And while reverberations from the result will echo in the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, they do not necessarily portend a dramatic shift in the national mood against the incumbent prime minister.
“The Congress leadership in Karnataka stood united and the BJP crumbled under its own misgovernance and infighting,” KS Dakshina Murthy, a veteran political commentator and author from Bengaluru, Karnataka’s capital, told Al Jazeera. “The anti-incumbency wave against the saffron party was palpable on the ground,” he said, referring to the saffron flag of the BJP.
The big message
David Bodapati, a senior journalist covering Karnataka politics for three decades, pointed out that the Congress had won by the biggest margin of any victor in the state since 1989, when it had won 178 seats securing 43.76 percent votes.
This clear majority allows the Congress to form a government on its own, as it did in 2013. A fractured mandate in 2018 — when the BJP was the single-largest party but short of the majority mark of 113 — led to four chief ministers under two governments sworn in over five years. That means the state is likely to have a stable government over the next five years.
Conversely, with its exit from Karnataka, the BJP no longer holds power in any of India’s five southern states.
Finally, the result could serve as a morale boost for the otherwise beleaguered opposition in India as it tries to devise a strategy to unseat Modi nationally, ahead of the country’s elections likely in April and May 2024.
Victory of ‘secularism’?
Addressing journalists on the election outcome, the state Congress’s tallest leader and former chief minister, Siddaramaiah, who goes by one name, said: “It is a victory of a secular party. The people of Karnataka don’t tolerate communal politics.”
Unlike many opposition leaders in the state and nationally who often hesitate to take on the BJP’s anti-Muslim political campaigns too directly, Siddaramaiah has been consistent in standing against the divisive politics of Modi’s party.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who visited 20 constituencies in Karnataka during his Bharat Jodo Yatra (a foot march by the Congress to spread the message of peace and unity across 12 states and two union territories last year), echoed Siddaramaiah’s statement, saying: “Karnataka has closed the gate of hatred and opened the shop of love.”
The outgoing BJP government had introduced a series of laws and regulations that were widely seen as targeting the state’s Muslims, who constitute about 13 percent of Karnataka’s population of 60 million. These included a ban on wearing a hijab by Muslim students in educational institutions last year and the scrapping of a 4 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions that many subcommunities among Muslims were benefitting from. The BJP government also passed laws ostensibly against forced religious conversions (India’s Hindu right often accused Muslims and Christians of using allurements and coercion to make Hindus leave their faith) and a ban on cow slaughter, among others.
Muslims have frequently faced harassment in Karnataka under the BJP’s rule. These laws gave legal cover for attacks on Muslims. Many Muslim men have been assaulted for instance, accused of love jihad, an unproven Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory that claims they woo Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
Muslims have been killed over allegations that they consumed beef – the latest being the brutal murder of a Muslim trader in Mandya on March 31. There were also calls by Hindu groups in Karnataka to ban halal meat, prohibit the use of loudspeakers for the Islamic call for prayers, and stop Muslim traders from running businesses near Hindu temples.
But the election results suggest that the BJP’s efforts to stir Islamophobia — a recipe that has worked well for it in northern states — has delivered limited results in Karnataka.
“The intelligent and peace-loving people of Karnataka have rejected the bigotry and violence unleashed on minorities by the BJP,” Ashok Maridas, a Congress leader from Karnataka, told Al Jazeera. “People want good governance, better roads, hospitals and schools to cater to the downtrodden.”
Local issues: Price rise, corruption
Political commentators say local issues like price rise and corruption played a big role in the BJP’s defeat. Murthy says the corruption allegations against the outgoing government have seeped into the minds of the voters. “It proved detrimental for the BJP.”
The Congress weaponised one jibe in particular, repeatedly referring to the BJP’s government as the “40 percent sarkar [government]“ – a reference to allegations by Karnataka contractors who claim that 40 percent of the tender amount for state-funded infrastructural projects is taken as a bribe by BJP leaders and officials.
Modi attended nearly two dozen election rallies in Karnataka but that could not salvage the party’s fortunes. “There was an absence of local leadership in the BJP. The Modi magic did not work for the Kannadigas [as the people of Karnataka are known],” Bodapati said. In Bengaluru, at the state BJP office, party workers and leaders have refused to comment on the setback.
Portent of the future?
At an event hosted by Eddelu Karnataka (Wake up, Karnataka) – a people’s movement – on April 25 in Bengaluru, psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav told Al Jazeera the Karnataka election results would set the tone for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
“The BJP wants to make the southern state the hub of lynchings and love jihad,” he said, describing the state as a “battlefield to save Indian democracy”.
But Murthy disagrees.
“The state elections are about local issues. Every election is different,” he said. “I don’t see the results having much bearing on the Lok Sabha polls. Probably, the BJP has realised the limitations of aggressive Hindutva politics after its latest defeat.” Hindutva or political Hinduism is the BJP’s ideology.
Yet the result will have an effect beyond Karnataka, Murthy conceded. “It will definitely bolster the confidence of the opposition.”